History of the Coca Leaf in Peru

The coca plant has been around since about 3000 BC according to Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia and also coca farmer, who seeks to reestablish the plant as the main cash crop in that country and create more economic stability for the coca farmers (cocaleros), but, however, not for illegal cocaine production.

The coca leaf is today used in South America and principally in Peru, just as it was many centuries ago as a stimulant to ward off tiredness and increase stamina; and as a cure for the relief of high altitude sickness. It also has high nutritional properties and can be used as a food when other foods are not available. Reportedly the coca leaf contains iron, calcium, phosphorous, and vitamins A, B, and E.

Coca (Erythroxylum coca) grows wild and is cultivated in the Andean region of South America which includes Bolivia and Peru. Coca is also native to this region. 

Ancient history

The earliest known historical knowledge of coca leaves being used are from 2500 to 1800 BC in northern Peru (Huaca Prieta), where it is thought it was used primarily by the elite and royal social classes in Peru and for religious purposes.

Coca leaves have been chewed for over 4500 years in the Andean nomadic cultures of South America such as the Tiwanaku, Amyara, Incas, and Quechuas who still use the leaf today. The use of the coca leaf extends throughout South America in both ancient times and modern times in the countries of particularly Peru and Bolivia but also in Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile, Columbia, and Argentina.

Traditional uses

The Mayo Clinic lists the traditional uses of coca as coca leaves and coca leaf tea for reducing pain, decreasing hunger, and as a stimulant. According to the Mayo Clinic studies have used coca tablets and coca leaves for treating cocaine dependence and in exercise tolerance and hypoglycemia.

Specific uses today

Coca tea is marketed by the Peruvian National Coca Company as Delisse InKa Tea. The company states that the coca plant is grown legally in Peru and Bolivia. Coca Sek is a soft drink produced by the Nasa Indians on their indigenous reserve in southern Columbia. Coca is also used in medicines, soaps, and chewing gum.

An alcoholic beverage  called AGWA or AGWA de Bolivia is also manufactured that removes the cocaine alkaloid and also includes besides the coca leaf an infusion of a variety of herbs. The beverage is 30 to 60 percent proof. It is described as an herbal liquor and contains 40 grams of coca leaf.

Modern History

The modern history of the uses of the coca leaf begins in 1859 when Albert Niemann “isolated the alkaloid cocaine.” However one source states that as early as 1820 a coca liquer was manufactured by the De Medici and distributed throughout Europe. It was spoken of by Rudyard Kipling. (see timeline link below)

During the late 1860s cocaine was used as an anesthetic and spoken of by Sigmund Freud in a collection of papers on his experiences with cocaine.

In 1860 Angelo Mariani produced a wine from the coca leaf plant which was endorsed by Queen Victoria of England, Pope Leo XIII, and Thomas Edison.

The first Coca Cola or Coke was produced in 1886 by John Pemberton. This first Coca Cola contained cocaine, but by 1904, the cocaine was removed, however coca leaves were still used and are still used in the modern Coca Cola drink.

Although the writer has not visited Peru, relatives have reported their altitude remedy of coca leaf which was offered to them in a restaurant in Peru when on a hiking trip.

Coca leaf should not be confused with cocaine which is an illegal drug manufactured from an alkaloid in the coca leaf. The coca leaf itself is not a drug. The production of coca leaf for cocaine production is illegal in Peru. Coca leaf produced in Peru for all other uses is legal, such as in the production of teas, liquors, medicines, soaps, and other uses that decocainize the alkaloid that is used in the production of cocaine.

 Coca leaf timeline: